30 Jan-5 Feb 2015 #743

Lessons from Belgium

Former Belgian Prime Minister gives his take on Nepal’s constitution writing processes
Cynthia Choo

Political power games need to take a back seat when debating the constitution because one is governed by personal short-term ambition, and the other is of long-term national importance.

Former Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme has first-hand experience of this because he had to resign in 2008 after being unable to pass constitutional reforms for greater autonomy of Flemish-speaking areas in his country.

Side agendas like scoring political points, enhancing electoral value and finding face-saving strategies hamper the rational approach needed in a process for constitutional change,” said Leterme, who was in Kathmandu this week as the new head of the Stockholm-based  International IDEA. He also visited Burma before coming to Nepal.

Although no two countries are alike, Leterme drew parallels between the constitution drafting in Belgium and Nepal. For instance, filibustering is common in both legislatures – while in Nepal CA members destroyed furniture last week, Leterme himself once gave a seven-hour speech as a delaying tactic in parliament.

Belgium also had a polarised polity that resulted in a deadlock. “Many of the words and concepts on federalism I heard in Nepal during my visit like constituencies, districts, autonomy, transfer of competencies were the same as we used in Belgium,” he added.

However, with 103 ethnic groups in Nepal and only three in Belgium, Leterme conceded that “the sheer number of religions, languages and ethnic groups in Nepal should not be underestimated, and are important challenges to consider”.

With the politics of identity being the single most contentious issue that Nepal is facing right now, Leterme suggested that lasting inclusive, consensus-based solutions would have to be sought.

Citing lessons from the Belgium experience, he said everything hinges on the art of negotiation. “While negotiating you have to be prepared with lots of issues so that when you strike a deal on, say, a territorial constituency the one that makes a concession has another issue on which he can win.”

Being creative, thinking in terms of what is in it for the other side, is a means to achieving consensus. However, reaching a compromise is only half the solution, execution of agreements is the hardest part.

“Coming to an agreement represents a historic breakthrough, but implementing the constitutional change is also difficult, especially in Nepal where the changes are so monumental,” he said.

There is always the danger that populism will lead to the democratic process being hijacked by a group that wants to practice the tyranny of the majority. Leterme said this is where civil society and the media have a role to play as a check and balance.

“And leaders will need to have a very strong backbone and willingness to go to their people and defend their interests, knowing that in a compromise not everyone will be happy,” he said.

Leterme also understands the sensitivity of the Nepal government to foreigners giving unsolicited advice. In his meetings with top leaders in Kathmandu this week, he highlighted some of the mistakes that Belgium had made which Nepal could avoid.

“Ultimately, these are the problems of Nepal and Nepalis have to solve them,” he said, adding that he was hopeful that the leaders would find a compromise because despite differences their “inter-personal relations” were still good.

International IDEA has been working in Nepal to put on the table various solutions, resources and best practices to ensure an inclusive and democratic constitution.

Leterme said it was his firm belief in people power that has helped him make a smooth transition from being a politician to an international advocate of democracy.

He wants Nepal to focus on ensuring better overall governance through democracy:  “It is crucial to set in place programs that allow people to demand accountability and empower them to keep checks on the government.

Democracy is not only about elections, the quality of democracy is also important.”

Read also:

Muddy waters, Prashant Jha

Government at last, Kanak Mani Dixit